Home-spun philosophy of the Henman family

Britain's No 1 has an ancestral tree with remarkable branches. Now it may bear fruit.
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The Independent Online

If Tim Henman worries about playing at Wimbledon without a coach, at least he can feel sure that grandpa would have approved. "Never had a coach m'self," he would say with a West Country mixture of cussedness and irony. "And a'hardly ever lost to anyone who did."

It was frequently a subject of humour that Henry Billington, who once reached the third round of Wimbledon, would crank up his home-spun strokes to a higher level when pitted against opponents whose style was obviously tutored. Billington's scepticism was of course directed towards a very different type of coach to that which Henman has been seeking. Nevertheless the dyed-in-the-wool obstinacy of the Wiltshire farmer and the defiant individualism of his grandson have fascinating similarities.

That is why some Henman supporters feel he was born to do well at SW19, and why even the doubtful are intrigued that a family tree should sprout so many tennis-playing branches. Four generations have competed internationally and, of the three which played at Wimbledon, the last has produced what is arguably Britain's finest men's singles player since Fred Perry. And his middle name is Henry.

But Henry Billington never saw him make his Wimbledon breakthrough. Grandpa died several years before Henman hit the headlines in 1996 when, amid delirium, he saved match points to beat Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Had Henry lived longer he would have witnessed his youngest grandchild puncture his theory, succeeding with methods which could quite easily have been classics from a coaching manual.

Probably he would have been amused. His widow, Susan, has no doubt what his reaction would have been. "Henry would have been thrilled," she says. But, though the timing was too late for grandpa, it was quite good for grandma. She managed to keep playing till she was 80, but throughout the 1990s she had time on her hands, and was given a new way of maintaining an involvement with the game, watching Tim.

There seems little doubt either that she approves of her coachless grandson at Wimbledon ploughing his own furrow. With or without the agricultural pun, Henry and Susan had always done something like that.

Henry had learned tennis in the garden. He developed a style in which he hit the ball on the same side of the racket on both forehand and backhand. Had this unorthodoxy been coached out of him, he reckoned, he would have lost precisely the thing which made his game difficult to read and hard to play against.

He had good reasons for thinking so. At the 1939 French Open he beat Jacques Boute of France, Jacques van der Eyden of Belgium, and Joseph Asboth of Hungary, a post-war winner of the title, by a 4-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 margin. That carried Billington to the fourth round in Paris, an achievement which Tim Henman has yet to equal.

If ever Billington had problems with his game, which was not often, he might talk to a friend whose opinions he respected. His advice to his grandson for this year's Wimbledon might well have been not to let Stefan Edberg stray too far away. But even Henry's idiosyncrasies were not as eye-catching as Susan's. She had a spectacular under-arm serve, even by the standards of Edwardian times when such a delivery was rather more commonplace than it is now. It began with a flourishing parabola of the racket, it continued with the ball taking a right-angled lurch on landing, and it ended by travelling almost in a circle. She sometimes delivered it without practising it in the knock-up, so some opponents had little warning of what was about to happen, and continued delivering it without being distracted by the noisy indignities of attempts to return it. But while Henry's style was all his own, Susan's, possibly, was not.

According to one tale, she was advised to use it by her mother, Ellen Stawell-Brown, one of the first women to serve over-arm at Wimbledon, though not the first as is sometimes said. For a long time it was thought that the conventional serve could be too strenuous for women.

Henry persuaded Susan to use it when they played mixed doubles together although she served over-arm perfectly well when she was with her children. But her husband liked the way the wickedly spinning side-winder slithered so low that it discomfited even those opponents who got it back. It presented him with frequent opportunities for a couple of strides of those long flannelled legs and one sharp clump with a brawny forearm to put the ball away.

However by time their children, Tim, Tony, and Jane, were competing in the 1950s and 60s, tennis was changing. Top-spin backhands, once a rarity, were more common, and a good topspin second serve was becoming just about essential. The science of making strokes was soon to alter as rapidly as racket technology. Henry's home-made philosophy of tennis could not survive that.

Although his three children's talents were obvious, their technical development was less notable, and none of them progressed as they might have done, though all were successful in other fields. Tim ("uncle Tim" to Tim Henman) played county tennis and became a doctor; and although Tony had a spell competing in tournaments in the United States after he had gained an Oxford Blue, and even played in the Wimbledon qualifying competition, he eventually made a career in advertising. Jane, Tim Henman's mother, had a flowing style and reached county standard at a young age, but she also had children quite young. Jane's husband, Tony (known as "Ant" to avoid confusion), was a decent player at tennis and other sports, but for him these were pastimes and he became a lawyer. But it was fortunate for British tennis that Jane concentrated on her family. It was on the family court in Oxfordshire that the four-year-old Tim Henman first learned to hit the ball – in textbook fashion, of course, after what had happened to his uncles.

Grandma always reckoned that Tim had it in him, but, like the rest of us, was startled by the way he suddenly burst through five years ago. Since then she has often followed him on television, and always went to Wimbledon. This year, though, has been a disaster.

She has had a bad fall and broken a hip, an accident which brought a lengthy convalescence and was followed by slow-motion walking with a Zimmer frame. It has been a difficult road to recovery and there is still some way to go. There is no prospect right now of being able to drive.

But if it means coming to Wimbledon in a wheelchair she will do it. She is determined to be there again to share in the excitement of her unpredictable grandson. Naturally, she believes he can get close to winning it, and enjoys the chip in the lad which reminds her of the old block. After all, right from the start Tim was such a natural on grass that he did not really have to be coached how to play on it – and, of course, he's not often lost to those who did. And Henry would have been particularly thrilled with that.